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Commentary: Cambodia optimism on temple unsettles Siams

Bangkokpost 14-3-2013 by Wassana Nanuam

Siam folks unsettle over ICJ hearing on Preah Vihear temple

Siam folks unsettle over ICJ hearing on Preah Vihear temple

‘No matter how the World Court’s verdict comes out, we are neighbours and should not fight each other,” Cambodia’s defence minister and deputy premier, Gen Tea Banh said.

“We can [solve problems through] talks. We are supposed to be close friends as both of us are heading for the Asean Economic Community.”

He was urging both countries to stay calm while the Preah Vihear territory dispute unfolds.

However, the Cambodian general dodged a question about his expectations of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) verdict on the ownership of the disputed 4.6 sq km area surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. The ICJ’s ruling is expected later this year.

But the statement contained hints of optimism that Cambodia will win the dispute and will be able to claim ownership of up to 600 rai of the disputed territory.

Of particular concern to Thailand is Cambodia’s attempt to create the impression that it is the rightful owner of the disputed area. A military source mentioned a report which the Cambodian government cites to Unesco, that more ancient artefacts have been discovered around the temple ruins.

The ICJ ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia.

The report is seen as an attempt by Cambodia, which put up a fence and a Unesco sign around the “discovery” location, to expand the temple zone beyond the 20×100 metre plot that the Sarit Thanarat government allocated to Cambodia following the 1962 verdict.

The Thai side is also worried about the so-called “5+5” meeting point _ about 500m from the temple’s naga stairs. Each country deploys five soldiers (rangers for Thailand) to the spot every day from 8am-4pm. Despite the ongoing land dispute, Cambodia has constructed a border patrol police house for its soldiers next to the meeting point.

So at the end of the day, the Cambodian soldiers remain in the disputed area while the Thai side has to walk back to their base, giving the impression that the area belongs to Cambodia.

These rangers are more like “hostages”. If a conflict arises, the Thai rangers could easily be taken captive, as happened in February 2011 when the two sides clashed.

Moreover, all the signs placed at this meeting point read only in Khmer, despite Thai demands to have Thai-language signs erected on the Thai side of the meeting point. “We are supposed to have put up our signs but we don’t want to spoil the friendly atmosphere over such a trivial matter,” the source said.

Another source said Thailand is dubious about its neighbour. When Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat travelled to the Preah Vihear temple to meet his counterpart Gen Tea Banh on Feb 26, Cambodian Deputy Defence Minister Nieng Pad was said to have wanted to welcome the Thai minister and his entourage at this 5+5 meeting point. The Thai side, however, resisted on the grounds it would give the impression that Thailand acknowledges Cambodian ownership of the overlapping area. Instead, the Thai side asked the Cambodian general to offer his welcome at the temple’s naga stairs over which Cambodia has ownership rights.

“We are keen to see that history will not repeat itself,” the source said, referring to a visit of Prince Damrong to the temple ruins in 1930.

At that time, the French resident general and Cambodian officers came to the site to welcome the Siamese prince who was then interior minister. Cambodia cited this historical incident when petitioning to the ICJ in 1962, saying it was tantamount to Siam’s acknowledgement of its ownership over the temple ruins. And the World Court ruled in Cambodia’s favour. The issue blew up again in 2008 when Cambodia registered the temple as a World Heritage site, triggering conflicts over overlapping land around the temple.

Since the Preah Vihear conflict erupted, Thai-Cambodian relations have ebbed and flowed depending on who is in power on the Thai side.

With Yingluck Shinawatra _ whose brother enjoys cordial relations with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen _ in office, relations have improved. Hun Sen has encouraged Thai and Cambodian soldiers to meet more often. The unprecedented meeting at the Preah Vihear temple between ACM Sukumpol and his counterparts was to give an impression that the bilateral relationship has improved and the ICJ’s eventual ruling will not lead to war.

Cambodia is confident, however, that the Yingluck government will be able to control its army should the ICJ rule that Thailand must give up the territory.

But this is pure speculation. We don’t know what the court will decide and whether the army, not to mention nationalistic groups such as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, will agree to act peacefully if the verdict is not favourable to Thailand.

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